Couple brings Sikh art into permanent collection at Montreal's Fine Arts Museum

The couple that helped bring this collection to Montreal says it gives the local Sikh community a feeling of pride to see their culture highlighted at the institution.

Centuries-old and contemporary pieces are part of new gallery at the institution

Mandeep Roshi Chadha and Baljit Chadha are seen at the opening of a Sikh art gallery in the Art of One World wing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on June 9, 2022.
Mandeep Roshi Chadha and Baljit Chadha are seen at the opening of a Sikh art gallery in the Art of One World wing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on June 9, 2022. (Sonali Karnick/CBC)

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has launched a new, permanent collection of Sikh art in its Arts of One World Wing.

Most of the items were donated from the collection of Narinder Singh Kapany, known as the father of fiber optics, with the help of Mandeep Roshi Chadha, a former museum board member who is now vice-chair of the board of trustees for the National Gallery of Canada.

"What does it do for our people when they walk around the gallery and they see themselves reflected in these elite, sort of, institutions? It's a sense of pride, it's a sense of belonging and it's a sense of yes, I am somebody too," says Roshi Chadha.

Kapany and his late wife, Satinder, founded the International Sikh Foundation with the goal of highlighting the contributions of Sikh artists, sculptors and architects. Before his death in December 2020, his collection was loaned to museums around the world.

A Sikh painting from the 19th century that is from Kapany's collection. It is now part of the gallery at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Christine Guest/MMFA)

He met Roshi Chadha and her husband, Baljit, six years ago in California through the foundation. Kapany asked the Chadhas to find a place for a number of the pieces in his collection in Canada after he learned of Roshi Chadha's involvement in the art world, as well as the couple's own collection of Sikh art.

The Chadhas had already shared Canada's art with India, bringing a nine-foot-tall inukshuk to be placed in front of the High Commission of Canada in New Delhi as well as other Inuit art for a National Gallery of Canada exhibit at the National Museum there.

"This Sikh gallery is an equivalent gallery in the other direction," says Roshi Chadha. "It is my culture."

With larger Sikh communities in Vancouver and Toronto, it may come as a surprise that such a significant collection came to Montreal. Roshi Chadha is asked a lot about why it's here.

"Baljit and I have been here: him 50 years and me over 40 years. Montreal is home and Montreal is in my backyard so why not Montreal?" asks Roshi Chadha. While she and her husband started their careers in Montreal, Roshi Chadha is regularly in Ottawa to fulfill her duties for the National Gallery.

And there are contemporary pieces included among the centuries-old works, too. 

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will open a very unique collection this week. It's now home to one of the most important collections of Sikh Art in North America. We'll hear from Mandeep Roshi Chadha, who helped being the collection to Montreal and the curator of Asian art at the MMFA, Laura Vigo.

"We are creating a space to support the wide range of artists in Canada and abroad who are engaging substantively with the pluralistic and open-ended histories, politics and aesthetics of Sikhism," says Sajdeep Soomal, a research assistant at the museum who helped co-ordinate acquisitions of the contemporary pieces in the gallery.

Dipti Gupta, who attended the gallery's official opening last week, said it was "heartening" to see such respect in Canada for the art of a people who a century ago had been subject to immigration restrictions.

"To find a space in a museum will allow people to revisit the contribution of Sikh history, art in all its glory," says Gupta.


Sonali Karnick is the host of All in a Weekend. Listen to the show on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. across Quebec.


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